Last month we talked about writing from a biblical worldview. When readers read your manuscript, what worldview are you communicating?
Now that we understand this foundation, let’s specifically look at 4 principles for rightly handling God’s Word in what we write:
“Context is king”
One of my favorite parts of The Princess Bride includes a bit of dialogue by Inigo Montoya. He spends much of the story listening to the arch-villain use the word inconceivable, but each time it’s used, what was supposedly “inconceivable” actually occurred. Montoya finally observed, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
This brings us to the Bible. Too often, verses are quoted out of context and assigned a meaning that differs from the original intent. One of the basic guidelines in interpreting Scripture is that “context is king.”
Think about the English word, trunk, for a moment. If I asked you to define it, you might answer:
- the luggage compartment of a car
- the central part of a tree
- men’s swimming shorts
- an elephant’s nose
But to give me an accurate relevant answer, you need to know my context!
When we’re trying to determine the meaning of a verse, context is one of our most important resources.
- What does the verse before and after it say?
- What is the thrust of the paragraph?
- What is the intent of the chapter it’s placed in?
- Who is the human author of the book?
- Who was the intended audience?
Philippians 4:13 (NAS) – “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
I love this verse for the encouragement it provides. Problem is, many take it to mean that we can do anything because of Jesus. While Christians do have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit because we belong to Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul was not referring to superhuman feats of strength when he wrote those words.
A quick review of the verses directly before and after verse 13 reveals Paul is talking about contentment, especially in suffering. He had learned to be content “in both abundance and suffering need” (verse 12).
How many of us are willing to quote this verse in the face of suffering and affliction? That’s the context!
Pastor and teacher Dr. Tony Evans explains the importance of context this way:
“Scripture was not meant to be read as individually packaged, motivational sound bites. Because God inspired the authors of Scripture, the individual books all flow out of the larger story of how He is at work in the world that He created, revealing His plan to redeem, restore, and reconcile it to Himself. This means that any verse, passage, chapter, or book of the Bible needs to be contextualized into this larger, interconnected story in which God progressively reveals Himself through His plan unfolding over time.
Beware of Proof-texting
Proof-texting is the practice of taking a verse out of context to support a position you have taken rather than what the context says it means.
During a terrible period in our nation’s history, some Christians justified slavery as biblical by using the Bible to proof-text their position.
Ephesians 6:5 – slaves obey your masters with respect and fear . . .
But this verse, in the context of the book of Ephesians and specifically ch. 6, merely acknowledged the reality of relationships that existed at that time in that culture. These verses were never meant to approve enslavement of fellow human beings.
As Agent & Author Dave Fessenden said in a conference workshop a few years ago titled “The Bible is Not a Quote Book,” we need to infuse our writing with a foundation of Scripture, rather than dropping in an occasional proof-text.”
Let Scripture Interpret Scripture
Scripture will never contradict itself. So if we interpret a particular verse to mean something that contradicts other verses, we’ve clearly interpreted it wrong!
Matthew 7:1 – “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”
Matthew 7:1 is probably the most often quoted Bible verse…by non-believers! It’s also used by Christians to defend themselves against other Christians who they consider to be legalistic.
This is a sensitive subject, but the bottom line is that the verse doesn’t say what most people think it does. In addition to examining the immediate context, we need to ask ourselves whether our interpretation is consistent with the whole body of Scripture. The Bible doesn’t contradict itself. If our interpretation contradicts other passages, that’s a good indication that we got it wrong.
Yet in the same chapter, we read:
- Matthew 7:6 – “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”
- Matthew 7:15-16 – “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.”
Other verses for us to consider are:
- Luke 17:3 – “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.”
- John 7:24 – “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”
To satisfy all these other verses, it’s clear some judgment is required.
These other verses do not contradict Matthew 7:1, which refers to our heart. We are not to approach others with a judgmental, condemning spirit. Rather, we use discernment to make judgments that will keep us from sin entanglements with unbelievers. And applied to other Christians, we always seek restoration, not condemnation.
Unpacking Literary Devices in the Bible that include figurative language.
- Parables: earthly story with a heavenly meaning
- Metaphor: – e.g. You are the salt of the earth” —> not literally!
- Simile: “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves
- Hyperbole: “first remove the beam in your own eye” – again – not literal!
- Anthropomorphism: “in God’s hand”
- Zoomorphism: “under His wings”
Those are just a few literary devices to be aware of when we quote Scripture.
Second Timothy 2:15 reminds us to, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a worker who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
- Do we study God’s word – rightly divide it AND apply it – as intentionally as we study the craft of writing?
- Are we as careful to ensure we’re not pulling verses and applications out of context – as we are to show don’t tell?
- Are we as committed to understanding the context of the verses we read – as we are to ensure that our beginnings hook the reader, our middles don’t sag, and our endings satisfy?
- Do we research various translations and research word studies as carefully as we choose just the right words to bring the reader into our protagonist’s POV?
We are writers and we study the craft of writing to do it well.
Let’s be diligent about doing the same as we handle the Word of God!